There's Something About 'Gerry'
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Gus Van Sant's newest film Gerry has already earned a notorious reputationfor being slow and pointless. It tries moviegoers' patience and has supposedlycaused them to walk out en masse.
For some people, that might hold true, but Gerry could well be Van Sant's masterpiece. It easily ranks with -- and at times surpasses -- his best work to date: Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and To Die For.
Inspired by the great Hungarian director Bela Tarr (Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies), Van Sant has created a minimalist film with long, meditative takes. It's more about mood and emotion than traditional plot points.
The movie begins with a beautiful Cinemascope shot of a car driving down some lost highway in the desert. After a few minutes, we're allowed a glimpse of the car's occupants, played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. We never learn their proper names, but they call each other "Gerry," which doubles as a slang term for a screw-up, or a wrong turn. (i.e., "We 'Gerried' too far to the left.")
The two Gerrys pull off the road at some kind of nature park and begin walking on a trail. They talk about "the thing" at the end of the trail. They walk for a long while and decide to turn back. ("F--- the thing," they decide.) But before they can reach their car, it gets dark. They set up camp, and in the morning they are officially lost.
The rest of the movie follows the guys as they hike around -- the movie was shot in Argentina, Utah, and Death Valley -- looking for a way out.
The first thing Van Sant does is strip away the usual "lost in the wilderness" conventions. Never do you hear the Gerrys saying the usual "when I get back, the first thing I'm gonna do is order a big steak" blather or showing pictures of their wives and kids. Their talk runs more along the lines of slang, a secret language that only the Gerrys understand.
For example, when the Gerrys attempt to find higher ground, Affleck gets stuck on top of a big rock. Damon finds him and the two decide that the only way down is to jump. After much deliberation, Damon begins building a "dirt mattress" for Affleck to jump down and land on. In order to build it, he uses a "shirt basket."
Van Sant shoots the rock sequence in one long take. Affleck waits on top of the rock in the upper left hand corner of the frame, while Damon marches back and forth with dirt in the lower right hand corner. Van San cuts to one brief medium shot of Affleck on top of the rock, then back to the exact same master shot for more dirt mattress action.
The scene must last some 8 or 10 minutes, and it elicits three reactions: sheer joy at Van Sant's audacity, fascination for this whole process and, oddly, suspense. The prospect of Affleck jumping and twisting his ankle is a real one, and in their situation, that could mean death.
As the movie goes on, the characters' chatter grows less and less. And the landscape changes. Scrub brushes disappear to just dirt and rocks, which changes to Utah's salt flats. In the movie's most amazing scene, Damon and Affleck trudge across the salt flats without a word for some 7 minutes as the sun rises to their left. Damon is in the extreme foreground, a little blip on the horizon, while Affleck trudges some 100 paces behind him. The soundtrack plays hypnotizing music by Arvo Part.
Normally a filmmaker guides your thoughts and feelings through carefully chosen angles and cuts. But without a cut, we're basically left stranded on our own. What do you think about while watching this for so long? Anything, really. But the weariness of the scene weighs on you until the most mundane thoughts take on heavy resonance.
Gerry is truly a film that wants its audience to be part of the process instead of just a big ticket-buying, popcorn-munching, machine.
Though the film is mostly improvised, Damon shares a "screenplay" credit with both Affleck and Van Sant -- his first since he won his Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting, also directed by Van Sant. But what's surprising about Gerry is how inventive it is as compared to a cuddly audience-pleaser like Good Will Hunting.
It's as if Van Sant and Damon are apologizing for that work and trying to contribute something truly great to the world, even to the point of challenging the audience's attention span, which is a huge no-no in Hollywood.
DVD Details: The sparse new DVD preserves the beautiful widescreen aspect ratio and contains a featurette.